Monday, November 29, 2010
Obscurity of the Day: Cat Tales
Cat Tales is a bit of an enigma, as is just about everything about the publicity-shunning Pusey and his creations. It started out in or before 1917 as a seldom seen offering of the Associated Newspaper co-op syndicate. Being with Associated means that the strip was almost certainly done for one of its member papers, but Pusey is only known to have worked at the New York World and supposedly the Philadelphia Inquirer (I say supposedly because I've never seen any evidence of his working there myself), neither of which were members. Cat Tales does show up at the Associated-member Philadelphia Bulletin, but not with enough regularity that I'm ready to place him in their bullpen.
Anyhow, the strip goes back at least to September 1917, the earliest I've seen, and perhaps farther. Although the strip was undeniably clever and attractive, Associated Newspapers co-op members sure didn't seem to think much of it. It is seen rarely in those days and continues that way well into the 1920s. It's so seldom seen that it would not surprise me at all to find that the strip went through periods, perhaps long ones, when production was ceased.
Sometime in the 1920s, though, Cat Tales switched to the nascent United Feature Syndicate, and thereafter isn't quite as stealthy about its mere existence. However, the daily strip was dropped sometime in 1929 shortly after Benny began its syndication through Press Publishing, the syndicate of the New York World. With the aid of a more energetic syndicate, Benny became a modest success. Between the success of Benny, and a short stint of Pusey writing for the Marx Brothers, evidently the always barely above water Cat Tales was considered expendable.
That's not the end of the story though. Sometime in 1930 (or perhaps even in 1929) the Benny strip gained a Sunday color adjunct, and Cat Tales was revived as the topper strip for it. This second (or maybe third or fourth?) chance for Cat Tales lasted until December 1932 or early 1933 when it was phased out of the topper spot in favor of a new Benny companion strip, Opportunity Knox.
James Carver Pusey (Jr.) was born in Avondale, Pennsylvania on February 18, 1901 as recorded on page 288 in "The Ancestry and Posterity of John Lea, of Christian Malford, Wiltshire, England, and of Pennsylvania in America 1503-1906". In the 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Pusey was the oldest of three children born to James and Susan. The family lived in Norristown, Pennsylvania. In the 1920 census James Sr. was no longer with the family. In 1930 Pusey was married and lived in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. He married Margaret around 1927. Pusey was working as a cartoonist for a newspaper according to the census.
A biographical portrait of Pusey appeared in the "Letters" page of the April 1, 1935 issue of TIME magazine. W.A. Custer of East Orange, N.J., wrote:
You forgot Benny....In [Time, Feb. 11] you get lyrical about Henry and
Philbert but seem to forget the fellow who started all this was Cartoonist
Pusey with his silent character the inimitable Benny.
I have seen Henry and Philbert but since 1928 or '29 to my mind Benny
in the World and then in the World-Telegram after its demise has been my
A TIME editor replied:
Favorite of many another comic strip addict is Benny, the woebegone runt
with the blond thatch, shapeless black clothes, and worried manner. As a
pantomimist, enthusiasts rate Benny with Charlie Chaplin, Harpo Marx. Like
them, Benny had none too easy time in the beginning. By 1928 he had been
turned away by nearly every feature syndicate, and had lain on the comic
editor's desk in the New York World for eight months. Cartoonist James
Carver Pusey (pronounced Pew-zey), who had just married, had despaired
to the point of accepting work as a gagman and ghost stripper when the
World notified him of Benny's acceptance.
[Second paragraph described Benny, and the third was about cats.]
Despite his own indigence, Benny supports Cartoonist Pusey in comfortable
style. Born 34 years ago in Avondale, Pa. Pusey decided to be a cartoonist
because it seemed an easy way to make a living. Discovering his error, he
ran a hot dog stand one summer, drove a truck, sold silk underwear and
hosiery, sold Frigidaires, became interested in a patented ice cream dipper
and astonished himself by selling one. Hoping to work his way to Europe he
hitch-hiked to New York, slept on a Battery Park bench for a week, returned
to Philadelphia, broke his nose in a Y.M.C.A. swimming pool, matriculated
at the Pennsylvania School of Art because school appeared more enjoyable
than what he had been doing. He studied one year, met the girl whom he
later married, began drawing in earnest.
Pusey spent several months in Hollywood as gagman for Harpo Marx, liked
it, but prefers his farm in Buck County, Pa., his horses and chickens. He
has seven dogs which he says were an accident. Short, rugged, Cartoonist
Pusey likes old-fashion cocktails, varicolored pousse-cafes. He works late
at night because he never manages to get started until then.
On April 29, 1935 TIME printed this letter by Byron McMahon of New York City:
Your story about Cartoonist J. Carver Pusey and "Benny" in Letters, April 1,
is very interesting, but it doesn't tell some of the most intriguing detail. Carver
(he has become "Jim" only in recent years) was called "Puss" in school
because of his name. His attempt to enforce the Pewzey" pronunciation of
his name is almost hopeless as he will admit. "Puss" Pusey the schoolboy
started drawing one-line cats as a signature. He found he could give them
expression, tell a pantomime story with them. Once or twice he got a
Philadelphia paper to print a cat or two. In 1925 he came to New York, sold
a pantomime strip called "Cat Tales" to United Feature Syndicate. It was
resold to the New York Sun, Baltimore Sun, Pittsburgh Sun, among others,
but its subtlety prevented wide popularity. Later "Benny" grew out of it, and
through the New York Evening World Pusey and Benny came into their
The date of Pusey's passing is not known.
This is almost becoming a game. Can I come up with someone so obscure that you can't run 'im down? Got one coming up Thursday that will be a challenge. The bane of the researcher -- a guy with a very common name!
Thanks again, Allan
What's the Name, Please?: A Guide to the Correct Pronunciation of Current Prominent Names
Charles Earle Funk
Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1936
page 131: Pusey, J. Carver—cartoonist—Rimes with newsy, unless you pronounce that noozy; if so, call him pew'zy.